Jack Crawford paced the hospital halls.
It wasn’t the best of hospitals, but they wouldn’t move him until they stabilized him.
If they could stabilize him.
“Price…yeah, glad you’re on it. I need someone on it until I can get there.” He sighed, considered going outside to light a cigarette. It was an old habit, a bad habit, but he needed something to do with his hands, something that didn’t involve going back to the nearest police station to strangle Peter Bernardone with his bare hands. He was a suspect, but it didn’t quite feel right to call him that. He chocked it up to the lack of sleep.
“It’s a blood bath, Jack. Looks like twenty-nine confirmed deaths, three missing persons, all with the name of Will Graham. We’ve got guys compiling data on each one, but they’re all over the United States. This isn’t a concentrated event in one location.”
“Of course,” Jack growled.
“So far…none are the Will Graham we’re looking for, though. There’s a couple we can’t get visual confirmation on due to their…manner of death, but the information is coming in slowly but surely. If he’s still in Georgia, no Will Graham’s been found in Georgia.”
It shouldn’t have been a balm to hear that, but it was. Jack leaned against one of the walls and took a few deep, soothing breaths. A damned shame, all the death, but god damn it was good to say that Will Graham could still be alive.
He was more than aware that he was going to hell for such thoughts, dark as they were .Cruel as they were.
“I want real names, information, cross-references; what ties all of these people together, apart from their names? How far in advance was this planned?”
“I’ll send it to you as I get more information. I’m here at the one in Baltimore. Looks like we got ourselves some Poe-lovers.”
“A cult of killers that are obsessed with a drunken poet that fantasized about death,” Jack muttered. “Why am I not surprised?”
“Oh, so we can call them a cult, now?”
“The sheer number alone that had to have been able to hit all of these people at once…the number alone that took Will, not counting the four that helped Lecter escape…fanatical messages scrawled across a wall…I’d say we’re in cult territory, Price,” Jack admitted. It blistered to say, left his mouth puckered and sour. Cult territory meant this wasn’t his jurisdiction, meant that someone else was going to come along and try to wrestle this case out from under him. “Director Purnell said she’s going to be sending someone in to cover it.”
“Brenda down the hall will be just overjoyed to hear that,” Price said wryly. The speaker crackled as he exhaled, leading to a pause on the line, one stifled. “Jack…how is he?”
“Still in surgery. He lost a lot of blood before we could get here.”
“How are you doing?”
Wherever you go, death follows.
“If he and Bowman can just pull through…I think I’ll be alright. Hell, if our Will Graham isn’t one of those Will Graham’s, I think I’ll be alright.”
“Jack,” Price said, and something in his tone stopped Jack’s frantic pacing, rooted him to the tile of the hospital floor that smelled of generic soap and concentrated bleach. “Jack…did no one tell you?”
“Tell me what,” Jack said, but his voice sounded far away, far enough away that it echoed, a distinct disconnect between him and his speech, him and the reality of the words that he somehow just knew Price was going to say. He leaned back against the wall once more.
“Agent Bowman…Lloyd didn’t make it. There was a complication after the surgery, and his body reacted badly to the medication…he passed away this morning, Jack. Lloyd is dead.”
He managed to take a seat on the bench nearby before his legs could give way beneath him.
Jack gripped the phone so tightly that it creaked. “Yeah…I’m here. That’s…thanks for telling me, Price.”
“My condolences…that’s…dammit, Price, have we sent flowers to his wife, yet?”
“They sent them this morning. I thought that when this was all over, we could go see her.”
“I think she’d like that,” Jack said numbly. “When’s the service?”
“I’ll find out and send that with the information about the bodies.”
“The bodies, yeah,” Jack agreed.
“Jack…Jack, I’m sorry, I thought they told you.”
“Hell, Price, let’s…let’s just do our jobs,” he said, and there was a painful relief that his voice came out so strong. “That’s what he’d want us to do, I think. Our jobs, so we can catch these bastards and finish them off for what they did. Save Will, and finish this shit.”
“Sounds good, boss,” Price replied.
He leaned back against the wall, staring at the small medic stand in front of him. There was a picture on it, one he saw in every government hospital that he’d visited, one he’d come to memorize as a sort of sordid joke during check-ups for Bella, in between chemo and scans and dialysis. It was a laminated photo of a series of poorly drawn smiley faces, a number system beneath to depict levels of pain. As the numbers grew, the smile turned to a flat line, then a grimace, then a howling expression of agony at 10. How do you feel? Bella liked to ask him, as he stared at that stupid laminated photo and waited for her to slowly die.
How does it feel?
Hannibal was the one to fetch Will the next morning. Sleep had eluded him for most of the night, left him stretched out and wan before one of the windows. The image of Randall in his mind was still, so very still, and his eyes shined too bright like newly minted dimes. Every time he blinked, he heard the crunching, snapping noise of the exoskeleton giving way beneath him. Every time he exhaled particularly hard, his ribs complained from the abuse. Waking gave way to every single abused joint and muscle in his body, but he relished in the pain because he was certain of something without having to be told, having ruminated long enough on the sound of cracking, of snapping that had registered beneath him, not just around him:
Randall was either dead, or he was very, very close to it.
“Good morning, Will,” Hannibal said by the doorway.
Will turned back and blinked at him languidly, eyes heavy-lidded and distant.
“I thought we could take breakfast in the study,” he said. “Unless you’d like to eat elsewhere.”
Will considered the proposal, then made his way to his feet with a wince. He didn’t care, in truth, as long as he didn’t have to eat with Matthew. If he saw Matthew, he may willingly try to do what he’d accidentally done to Randall.
He walked with a straight back, all things considered. When he reached the doorway, he jolted when Hannibal took hold of his face and cradled it with the faintest of touches, turning it to one side, then the other. Will stared flatly into his eyes, daring him. Challenging him.
“Still two blues,” he taunted Hannibal. “Turning it to a different angle in the light won’t change that.”
“Touch gives the world an emotional context,” Hannibal replied quietly. His thumb brushed a faint bruise near Will’s temple. “The touch of others makes us who we are, shows us how to view the world. Just how have you touched lately, Will?”
Hannibal hummed quietly and released him, turning away. Will followed him towards the study, his skin burning wherever Hannibal dared to put his hands on him.
Breakfast was pan-fried ham with some sort of quiche. Will eyed the ham with extreme prejudice as he sat down at the table that’d been tucked into the nook, fork turning over and over and over in his hand. His fingers were nicked, scratches adorning the backs from when he’d had to climb up a particularly savage hill.
“How do you feel this morning, Will?”
“Are any more of your groupies going to set mentally disturbed psychopaths on my trail if I piss them off?” Will asked. He took a small bite of the quiche, the flavors savory with undertones of thyme. The lack of meat in it gave him a little more courage, and he took another bite.
“I’ve spoken with Matthew about his rash decision yesterday. He shouldn’t give you any more trouble, and he expresses regret that he wasn’t able to find you earlier to call his little game off.”
“A game,” Will scoffed. “That was a game?”
“In his mind, yes. It was very untimely, seeing as how I’d organized an event so that you’d be able to meet everyone else in the house.”
Will thought of the banner that’d fluttered in the breeze preaching the Red Death; the voices and music coalescing together in an odd, twisted sort of white noise.
He wasn’t quite sure which would have been the better alternative –having to meet the occupants of the house in its entirety, or being hunted by Randall.
“…Unfortunate,” he muttered.
“Francis also spoke with him, as he is ardent about your safety in this house. You are as welcome here, Will, as any other.”
“As long as I conform and become,” he retorted sharply. “I’m not stupid, Dr. Lecter. You’ll only entertain this as long as it’s interesting, curious, or if you will gain something from it. When the interest fades, when the curiosity fades, and when you have nothing left to gain from having me here, you’ll have me disposed of.”
“Do you think of yourself as disposable, Will?”
He glowered at his breakfast, taking a sip of the coffee that sat just to the side of it.
“If I supposed that you were disposable, I’d have never bothered with this endeavor, Will. I’m not inclined to waste time.”
“You’re wasting Jack Crawford’s time,” he pointed out. “If you don’t intend to kill me and toss the body for him to find, then you’re just wasting his time. If you…really intend to just keep me prisoner here forever, he’ll keep searching. He’ll waste his life trying to find me.”
“I’m teaching Agent Crawford a valuable lesson,” Hannibal replied mildly. He sat down across from Will, one leg folded elegantly over the other, dress slacks hitched just-so. “His obsession with the two of us isn’t healthy for him. Exposure therapy for his obsession may just be the trick to help him overcome it.”
“Some would argue that exposure therapy is an out of date, unorthodox practice.”
“The two of us worked on several unorthodox practices in your therapy, if you recall,” he replied with a coy smile.
“Forcing me to attend a gala in order to overcome social anxieties isn’t the same sort of unorthodox therapy as knowingly dangling the hope of potentially beating you so close in front of him. That merely drives him further into his obsession,” said Will. He stared into his quiche and took a large, unattractive bite.
“I requested that you attend the gala because I enjoyed your company, actually,” Lecter said with the faintest impressions of a smile. “You supposed that it was exposure therapy, and I wasn’t inclined to correct you.
Will glanced up at him, at his unnervingly blue eye, and he frowned.
“So you purposefully withheld that information in order to persuade me to attend the gala?”
Will would say that he was surprised, but he wasn’t all that surprised. If Hannibal’s eyes had indeed changed color so soon after meeting Will, he’d have naturally tried to find ways to spend time with him outside of the office, to try and initiate a staggered connection without the pressure of patient-therapist.
“You haven’t asked about Randall Tier.”
“I don’t care about Randall Tier,” said Will with a snarl.
Will did, but he didn’t want to admit it. He thought of Randall’s eyes when he’d fallen on top of him, gazing into the space just over his shoulder like he could see into eternity.
“…Is he dead?”
So calmly was it said, bereft of blame or gleeful accusation. Will chewed on the inside of his mouth, teeth dragging against the fat of his cheek before he forced another bite of food down his throat. Behind him, like sharp taps against the top of his spine, the second hand ticked on the mantle.
“He asked me to kill him after you managed to paralyze him,” Hannibal said. He could have been commenting on the weather, or on the shade of a particularly flattering blouse, for all the care in the world that his tone conveyed. “I was honored that he’d care so much as to ask me.”
The rush of relief was almost dizzying, and Will found himself leaning back against the chair, heels digging into the rug. His eyes sought his hands, studied the cuts and bruises. The skin by one knuckle was puffy and yellowed from falling, and his wrist twinged when turned just-so. He wondered if Randall felt the same sort of panic that Will felt, running for his life. As he lay in the dying leaves, did his heart pound so hard against his ribs that they bruised? Did his breathing cut short as he tried to move legs that were unable to listen to his pleas?
“I fell on him,” he said at last, after a long and agonizingly quiet silence. “From a tree.”
“When you were running for –what could arguably be called –your life, how did that feel?” Lecter inquired. His gaze traced over Will, paused on his hands.
“Are we really doing this?” Will demanded. “These ham-handed attempts at crawling into my mind, hoping that you’ll stumble across something that prompts a connection?”
“It’s been almost seven years since the two of us have had a conversation,” Hannibal said shamelessly.
“For a reason.”
“I’ve missed our conversations, Will. Two like-minded individuals being able to lay bare their thoughts and most intimate of feelings, unhindered by societal expectations. It was refreshing.”
“It was a lie.”
“Is that what this is about?” Hannibal asked. “You felt deceived?”
Will set his fork down on the near-empty plate and leaned back into the chair, digging his spine to the dips and grooves of it. It was about as calming and grounding as it could ever be, all things considered, but he was trying.
“I felt…disgusted,” he said at last. “Unclean. For the longest time, my thoughts…my inner voice had been myself. Same timbre, same tone…same way of speech. Then I went to therapy with you, and I heard my inner voice as you instead, whispering…dark things. Manipulations, thought processes that prompted not-so tasty thoughts. It felt normal, though. You normalized those thoughts and feelings. When I felt…intrusive thoughts from my empathy, you encouraged them.”
“Normalizing such things is a form of overcoming.”
Will rubbed a sharp retort from his mouth, focusing instead on the small ring of condensation that’d gathered on the table from his cup of coffee.
“Was it so difficult for you, Will, too see me in my entirety? Was your horror in finding Jack Crawford because a person was wounded and dying, or did some of that horror extend from you finding yourself curious about it?”
“You held your father as he died, Will, and you have witnessed someone’s most intimate moments as their life ultimately ended. How did you feel when you saw Jack Crawford’s blood on my rug? How did you feel when you saw me?”
“…I thought there had to be some other explanation.”
“And when there wasn’t?” Hannibal pressed. Fingers like parenthesis hooked across his cheek as his gaze bore into Will’s. Will felt his stare burning into the back of his skull.
“It made me think of one of the only sermons I’d ever heard.” Will chewed on the skin on his thumb and stared at Hannibal’s hideously checkered tie. He’d always hated his weirdly patterned ties. “My father wasn’t a church-going man, and neither was I. Churches…were overwhelming. People were overwhelming.”
“A room full of ardent worship and the decaying of logic to make way for grandiose ideals of higher beings that can erase your sorrows with radiant light.”
Will nodded in agreement, fixating on a small bit of lint on the tie. “We were poor. I wore jeans and a t-shirt, and he wore an ill-fitting suit. The pastor stood at the pulpit, sweating like he had a terrible secret.” Will glanced up long enough to give Hannibal a pointed, dark look. “He said, ‘When the devil appears before you, he will not wear a red cape and horns. When the devil appears, he will instead be dressed fine and showing you everything your heart could ever desire.’”
Hannibal had a way of tilting his head when he studied someone, like he could twist his gaze further into your mind if he tried hard enough. Will felt his stare in his flesh, in his bones as he looked back down, propping his chin up with his fist.
“Then,” he continued, “I walked into your office and saw Jack Crawford bleeding to death on your rug. When he said who’d gutted him, I already knew. The person that promised me mental clarity, a paddle when things became too much, and a place where I could finally silence the voices crowding within my mind, was also the man that took those ideals just when I’d whole-heartedly accepted them, and stepped on them.”
“I promised safe harbor, and instead I gave you a craggy shore.”
“I sometimes wake up and taste blood in the back of my mouth,” he said bitterly. “You gave me that.”
There was no remorse in his face at that, only a slight twist of his expression, like he was thinking particularly hard on something. Will finished his coffee and swallowed it down along with the blood that’d pooled on his tongue from biting his cheek.
“This,” he continued, after a thought, “all this does is solidify that. Do you think that by keeping me in this imbalanced stated, this sense of not-quite finding my footing, keeping me like a dog at your beck and call, will promote some sort of relationship between us? That I’d somehow endear myself to your qualities in order to-”
That stopped him, though, that thought that created a chain reaction in his mind. Each piece fell into place, and his mouth twisted into a snarl, unable to quite label his emotion disbelief when he could fully believe what he was fast realizing.
“Capture bonding,” he said, and he glared at Hannibal’s unruffled appearance. “You think that in order for me to survive, I will take on the traits and behaviors of my aggressors so that I live.”
“It’s the natural order of things,” Hannibal said evenly.
“It would be a lie, Dr. Lecter. Even if I did, you’d know that deep down it was only done so that I wasn’t eaten for breakfast. That’s what you want to sloppily attempt to base a connection off of? Nature’s way of protecting psyche from trauma?” He laughed, and it was a bitter, rugged thing. “If you genuinely wanted something from me, you’d find that honesty and mutual respect go a long way. If you looked at me as a person rather than an obstacle to ultimately change to your whims, you’d know that.”
If you weren’t a psychopath, you’d understand that.
Hannibal’s lips parted, but a knock on the door interrupted him from saying whatever he’d intended. Matthew stepped into the room, gaze bouncing from Will to Hannibal; his thin lips twisted into a smirk.
“Dr. Lecter, someone is here for you,” he said.
“Thank you, Matthew. Have them wait in the…” Hannibal paused, considering where to place them.
“They can come here,” Will decided, standing up. “Our, uhm… ‘session’, if that’s what you want to call it, is over anyway.”
Matthew looked to Lecter for confirmation, and he gave a nod, amused. Will felt it like grime under his fingernails, and he headed towards the door, brushing against Matthew’s shoulder as he went.
“How do you feel this morning, Mr. Graham?” Matthew asked, not looking or sounding sorry at all.
There were many things that Will could attribute to his personality: social anxieties, introversion, a love of dogs and fishing, impatience coupled with a quick wit and a sharp tongue.
A genuine, all-encompassing sarcasm.
“Better than your dog Randall Tier,” he said, and he walked out of the room.
Francis sat down across from Hannibal in the study, his expression grave. Just over Hannibal’s shoulder, a mirror rested on the wall, wreathed in ivy and overlooking succulents.
He tried often enough not to stare at his face in that mirror. In truth, he avoided looking in any mirror –he hated what he saw. The cleft palate always stood out to him as a shining beacon of horror, something to attest to the monstrosity that crept deep inside. He used to turn his head this way, then the other; he practiced his words, although he spoke very little. Every other word held some sort of hiss to it, something that made his tongue fat in his mouth and made his old speech impediment flare up.
He thought of Will, though, and the way that he looked at him with rapt attention, like each and every sound was grounding rather than horrific. Speaking around him wasn’t so difficult as it was to find the right words to say. In truth, it was just finding a way to make him understand. If one could make Will Graham see, one could make Will Graham feel –and wasn’t that something extraordinary to be privy to?
“What have we found?” Hannibal asked. With Matthew out of the room, he relaxed in a way that felt familial, calm to Francis. The good doctor trusted Francis, gave him room to grow and be himself without fear of censure or judgement. He’d seen Francis’ creations and marveled at them. He appreciated, understood. Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, two individuals that Francis felt could know him in a fundamentally important way.
“They were tipped off about Georgia,” he admitted. A frown turned his lips harshly down. “One of our own slipped.”
“Saul.” Sometimes, he imagined the way that the letter ‘S’ used to sound. Th-hall. Nasally, breathy. It made his scowl deepen. “I hadn’t wanted him there.”
“I recall, Francis.”
“He left his backpack. I know that he carried with him a water bottle, a notebook of poetry, a science-fiction novel, his wallet, and an electronic device.”
Hannibal looked mildly perplexed at that, so Francis explained, “Nothing that could trace to an internet. Older technology, battery operated.”
“I see.” Hannibal steepled his fingers, deep in thought as he stared off at nothing in particular. “It is a grievous error that he made. Do you suppose that it was intentional?”
“He never should have been in that apartment. It made my calculations off, and one of the men almost killed him as a result. In that moment, when I acted to subdue the agent, that is when he must have left his bag in his haste.”
“A foolish accident, then.”
“Where they’ve narrowed it down to Georgia-”
“How was Will, Francis?” Hannibal interrupted gently.
Francis didn’t like talking about Will Graham with others. It was a common enough topic within the house, but he kept to himself in the house, far too busy as he was with security, intel, and the plan. Most of the people within were tools, bargaining pieces and pawns on the chessboard to be moved as necessary for things far above the scope of their understanding. The way they said Will’s name tarnished it somewhat, with the thoughtless way they tossed it about –as though he could be so easily Changed. As though he could be so easily Moved. With Hannibal, though, there was another sort of unease altogether.
“Dehydrated, artificial injuries. He slept a long time.”
“Did he speak with you again?”
“He said that he had to survive us.”
Hannibal nodded thoughtfully at that. Every word he took from Will was carefully weighed, measured for the intent beneath. When he said Will’s name, it was with something much akin to respect.
“He trusts you,” he noted, and the look he gave Francis was mischievous. “He allowed you to help him to his room, and he allowed you to inspect his wounds.”
“I did not have the same repertoire with him that Molly and Beverly did. That betrayal never happened.” Francis paused for a considerable amount of time before adding, “I also haven’t threatened him the way others have, here. He knows precisely where he stands with me, therefore there is an even ground despite his situation.”
“How does it make you feel to have that sort of consideration from him?”
Francis very much wanted to squirm, but he held still. This was a test, as much a test as any other test he’d ever taken, and Francis was rather good at what he did –lying, conveying something that was or was not real for the sake of his own survival.
Hannibal had a way of looking at people that told you precisely what he thought of you. The look he gave Francis was much the same look that he’d always given him –a thoughtful, amused expression, like he wasn’t quite what Hannibal had ever expected him to be. An accomplishment, all things considered. Hannibal, despite having his plans, loved to be surprised by people.
“It must be overwhelming to finally have the chance to see him so closely after so many years of watching from a distance,” Hannibal said at last. It was, in his own way, a jab. Francis took it with the necessary grace. He’d been the one to keep tabs on Will, the one to keep him safe from harm or danger while Hannibal was locked up. Despite it being his job, it granted him a sort of knowledge, intimacy that no matter how he described it to Hannibal, Dr. Lecter would never be privy to.
He thought of the few and rare times he’d seen him smile –those memories were locked away, tucked deep within the recesses of his own memories that no one could ever take from him.
“He is still interesting,” Francis agreed, “despite the veneer of distance being stripped away. Not handsome, but…purposeful. Each action has a direct meaning and intent.”
“Continue to keep a close eye on him for me,” Hannibal said, and he turned to take a sip of tea. “Ensure things continue with Matthew in a healthy, smooth manner that follows a natural rivalry.”
Francis nodded curtly, once.
Hannibal sighed softly. “I’ll think on that matter with careful consideration. He does have a soulmate underneath our roof, after all.”
Francis liked Beverly far better when she wasn’t around Saul. She was far more capable without the dead weight. Saul had been necessary at first, but a mistake like this…
“Perhaps it will be a test of her faith in our actions, that she should be the one to decide what should be done with him,” Hannibal murmured, and there was the barest twitch of a smile at his lips. “We’ll see.”
“We’ll see,” Francis agreed.
In truth, he hoped that if given the information, Beverly would turn and gut her soulmate for his transgression, but he wasn’t going to get his hopes up.